I talk to a lot of high-performing, ambitious people who, like I was before I started my own business, are frustrated at work. That frustration centers around a disconnect between the job they want and the job they have. A lot of times, they view their immediate supervisors (however beloved) and those one level above them as directly to blame.

Because blaming others makes us powerless to change our own circumstances, it's not particularly helpful--regardless of how right you might be about being wrongly passed over.

Instead, here's what is more constructive.

Throughout the last eight years of my corporate job (described here), I was missing the key that would have unlocked the promotion I desperately wanted. And the funny thing is that it's not like my leadership was intentionally keeping it a secret. It's this:

Taking myself out of the promotion mindset and instead focusing all my efforts and initiative on just doing the job at the next level would have 1) sparked the (preliminary) results, 2) demonstrated precisely the kind of entrepreneurial leadership they were looking for, and 3) been a hell of a lot more fun.

Companies don't tell would-be promotees this little secret for a number of reasons (and none of them are sinister or sneaky). Corporate leaders have much more simple reasons for staying mum.

First, they worry that if they advise ambitious staff to tear down the lane lines and swim wherever and however they want, chaos will ensue. They worry that the corporate structure will shake, the culture will quiver, big deals will get screwed up, and people will bump into each other. There will be bruising and a lot of Band-Aids. In other words, things will be out of control. And, if there is anything that corporate leadership hates--it's a loss of control.

Second--and perhaps an even more a prevalent reason is--a lot of managers don't realize that they're looking for someone already performing at the next level when they say, "I'm looking for that X factor" or "It's tough to put into words but I know it when I see it" about the prospects for a certain promotion candidate. What they really mean is that, "I'll believe someone has the capabilities and wherewithal to perform at the next level when they start acting more like me."

And, who is this "me"?

Corporate executives are, of course, as varied as a bag of Skittles, but they share a couple common beliefs about themselves and how to lead.

  • They believe they're talented--after all, they've been told that over and over again for years. They believe they have superior business acumen. This belief is derived from each person's unique combination of three things: schooling, professional experience, and track record for tuning into their "gut feelings."
  • They believe everything in the business would be better if they just had the time personally to get involved with the details. Alas, they don't, so they are forced to rely on others--their staff. The staff who take the greatest burden off of them, instill the greatest confidence that decisions are being made that most closely match their own--if they were there to make them--win. That's the simple truth of it.
  • They believe that the competencies are important. Companies--especially big ones--have worked hard to establish and document skills and capabilities for each level. And these are important to know and master. However, if you think they're going to get you promoted by checking the boxes, don't waste your time. You're not going anywhere because... executives also believe that the corporate competencies are limited. Any advanced management or leadership role requires business intuition and acumen--two things that are tough to articulate, difficult to be trained on, and impossible to proactively measure.

Taking yourself out of the promotion mindset doesn't mean that you ignore that drive to achieve more. Instead, you embrace it in a way that is ultimately more empowering. You study the behaviors and actions of those most successful in that role today. Add your unique perspective and strengths to the mix and begin conducting yourself as if you have the job you want. No big announcements are needed- just a change in how you carry yourself and contribute to each big challenge that arises.